“Perhaps there isn’t any more to life than just being what you are” Neil from “49 Up”
In my lifetime I’ve been happy and I’ve been unhappy. I don’t believe there is any shame in that. The unhappy times have simply given me the initiative or drive to discover what it is that makes me happy or sad. In fact, I came to believe that there are two types of people in the world: people who are interested in how things work and people who are interested in how people work. In reality there are probably people who could give a hang about how anything works, but I’m interested in how people work.
I wish that the participants in the “Up” series could watch the shows through my eyes. They can be so hard on themselves. When I was growing up, my mother would always hide her face behind her arm, hand or whatever was available in movies and still pictures; and there was a nervousness, shyness or lack of confidence in my mother I believe you can see riding almost, but not quite, invisibly coating over her skin like quicksilver. I think that’s what I look for most when I look at people: a mercury coating of fear. Despite their quiet comments about how difficult the television appearances are, for the most part the “Up” participants bravely reveal details of their lives without a trace of quicksilver. For a person like me, a series like this is like being given a seven pound box of mixed center chocolates. (I didn’t see the different episodes seven years apart, but back to back over about a week’s time.) At the end of each episode, it’s like I have the basic framework of what each person is like and I get to see if solid dark chocolate outside still produces solid chocolate center in the next episode or whether it will suddenly become lemon creme.
Solid chocolate center morphs into lemon creme far more often than I ever would have expected.
In the beginning one or the other of them would make a comment and I would think, “Well, I don’t like that person;” but after seven episodes I have fallen a bit in love with all of them. Collectively, they are the only people on film that I believe if I saw them in person I would be compelled to try and hug them and probably be driven to tears and start balling. Why? Because they’ve exposed their humanity. Over the course of the episodes they have proven themselves not to be any label. The less educated individuals will say some of the most intelligent things; the conservative individuals will perform some of the most liberal deeds; those who proclaim they are weak prove to be strong; there is no end to the little surprises and contradictions.
Sometimes I wonder if the series itself did influence the various outcomes of its participants and there is only one instance where I feel a little indignant against the producer’s. In “35 Up” Tony said on camera that there wasn’t anything that he had attempted in life that he didn’t do. I could immediately see his point and agree with him. He wanted to be a jockey and he was a jockey; he wanted to drive a cab and he drove a cab; he wanted to act and he acted. But the interviewer said something to the effect of “but you didn’t make a success of any of those things.” From the view through my little window on the show, a look flashed across Tony’s face like he had been hit by a brick. It looked as if the notion of success or lack of success qualitatively had never crossed his mind. What he had set his mind to do, he had done - end of story.
There was another moment in either “42 Up” or “49 Up” where Jackie observes that one of her sons is much like her and the interviewer asks if that worries her. Her reaction is less heart wrenching than Tony’s, but is much like a dog being smacked with a newspaper. “How could you say that to me?” She finally sputters. “Do you think that I’ve turned out so badly?”
It probably can’t avoid a bit of the butterfly effect. No matter how neutrally the interviewer tries to phrase his questions, he will occasionally influence and startle his subject and no doubt slightly nudge the trajectory of his/her path forward.
In “49 Up,” John compares the “Up” series to “Big Brother” and “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” and says it has the added bonus that people get to watch them over a longer period of time and see who got fat and whose marriage broke up. The “Up” series, for me, is so much more than any of those reality programs. It embodies exactly why reality programming can be compelling; i.e. watching real people; but without the “stupid human tricks” circus that reality programming inevitably ends up. It is exactly because those 14 children weren’t seeking their 15 minutes of fame like so many reality show contestants that they are fascinating to watch and worth watching. It is why as Nick says in “49 Up” that the series is so important.
Perhaps because I’m American and not British, I was immune to some of the class comparisons (although I did compare schooling priorites between the two countries.) For me, it is fourteen individuals navigating the waters of life like we all do. Because you only see about 10 minutes of each person (which includes clips from previous shows,) you could never claim to know any of them; but because you so frequently find yourself saying “I’m just like that” or this friend or that friend is just like that - you DO know them.
At least I do.
(The “Up” Series is available to watch at Netflix.)